Inconsistent subspecies name syntax in iNat

I review a lot of bird records in iNat and have noticed that there are at least three versions of syntax for subspecies in birds (Class Aves):

Version 1 presents the English name (I know not what happens in other languages) with the subspecies presented in a parenthetical.

Version 2 presents the subspecies name (“Yellow-shafted”) within the name of the species (“Northern Flicker”).

Version 3 presents the English subspecies name, but does not present the English species name at all (here it would be “Dark-eyed Junco”).

While Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented consistency, his actual objection was to “foolish consistency.” Consistency is critical in science, which is why biology does what it does in regard to the syntax of hierarchical taxonomy levels. I suggest the same consistency in the presentation of English subspecies names in iNat, at least within Class.


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It’s worth noting that the AOS standardizes many of these names, and consistency with them is also something to be valued.

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With common (i.e.vernacular) names, they should reflect what the birds are called in conversation by non-technical folks.

The point of including vernacular names is supposed to be to meet users where they are, thereby simplifying the user experience. That tends to get lost when the common names (at whatever level) are standardized by committee but iNat nonetheless defers to those committees.


Not so much, I think. The homogenization of language and culture is a dubious objective, at best.


I think that the issue here is largely with how the common names have been entered, not the actual content of the common names lists.

No one is proposing removing any legitimate common names here as far as I can tell. But the most commonly used of the common names in a given area should be the default common name for that area on iNat as a general principle as it is what the most users will expect to see. This maximizes usability of the site, but users are also free to search/ID using other common names which will return the taxon as well. For instance, I doubt that most people say Downy Woodpecker (Northern) (the current name displayed for the taxon) when speaking, but searching for the more natural “Northern Downy Woodpecker” returns the correct taxon:

For birds in the US, the most commonly used common names by iNat users are almost certain to be the AOS names.

That said it doesn’t look like AOS offers common names for subspecies on its checklist to me ( and they aren’t referenced in

though I’m not a birder. If that’s the case, it might make sense to review some of the common names to make them more natural. Downy Woodpecker (Northern) just seems strange to me. While issues with individual species though should be discussed on taxon flags, it is probably appropriate to discuss whether there are sources for common names for subspecies of large groups or general iNat rules for this here. At some point, the conversation should transition to a flag on iNat where relevant curators are tagged if changes do need to be made.


Perhaps, but I can think of more than a few examples where that’s at least debatable, even leaving aside the reality that the AOS has a thing about rebranding species with depressing frequency. I think the idea is that iNat should be a user-friendly environment for anybody who wants to log on and start observing. Folks who think a buzzard is a big bird that eats dead stuff are pretty common. I am pretty sure that approximately as many people know the bird as a marsh hawk as northern harrier. I’ll spare folks another harangue about whiskeyjacks.

I think that’s at least part of what’s at issue with version 3.

The key words here are “should be”. That is absolutely not how it actually works. But that’s a bit of a digression from the main point here.

I doubt that many people say Northern Downy Woodpecker, as well. I’m dead certain that the number of people who have spontaneously uttered the string “Northern Yellow-shafted Flicker” in casual conversation is small. Most people don’t know or care about subspecies (or, in some instances, don’t know that what they think of as species don’t meet the criteria - e.g. Version 3) and refer to what they see using vernacular that reflects that lack of care. In a world where taxonomic hairs are split with increasing fineness as molecular techniques parse relationships ever more closely it makes little sense to expect nonspecialists to apply names reflecting the proliferation of subspecies, varieties and whatnot and no sense to expect anybody but taxonomists to stay on top of the latest iterations. I have two biology degrees and it drives me nuts. People can learn about these things after they’ve entered their woodpecker observation and wondered about why the thing they know of as a downy (if they even know that) has northern appended to its name.

Version 1 at least has the merit of not pretending to be vernacular. The common/vernacular name (what most people say when referring to the bird) is downy woodpecker and the taxon in question is the northern subspecies of that species. The parenthetical approach does not pretend that ordinary folk speak like attendees at an AOS meeting, on the one hand, while providing the information needed to be clear, on the other.

iNat will do with this what it will. Almost certainly that will include inventing common names for taxa, something we are told is, at least at the species level, the exclusive prerogative of “experts”, however obscurely defined.

On the main point, which I think is about style not substance, the world is a messy place. It is usually good to strive for consistency but a mistake to expect it and some things just don’t fit even the most well-intentioned systems.


I want to add that iNaturalist follows Clements Checklist for bird taxonomy. And I’ve seen that iNaturalist has changed its English names for birds in response to Clements updates.

In Clements checklist, subspecies do not have English names unless they are monotypic subspecies groups. And the names are invariably Version 1. But it seems like iNaturalist has a preference against Version 1 names, and tries to use Versions 2 or 3 whenever possible. Because most names I’ve seen haven’t been Version 1.

I personally dislike Version 1 names, but that does justify “deviating” from Clements? I put scare-quotes around “deviating” because technically only taxonomic deviations, not common name deviations, are really deviations.

And if we don’t have to follow frameworks for common names, then I suggest renaming the Feral Pigeon and maybe Old World Parrots.

What other name does anyone give to ‘Feral Pigeon’? Speaking from the UK I’ve never heard them called anything else by anyone…

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We just call them pigeons over here in the US. At least, I do.

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City pigeon. Or just pigeon. I have heard a wildlife rehabber use the term rock pigeon.


As long as the format for the scientific names for the subspecies are correct and uniform I don’t see a problem with variation in how common names address subspecies naming.

Common names are a reflection of how people actually name things in daily use, and there is going to be variation and inconsistency, even among professionals. That’s why we have scientific binomials (I guess trinomials in the case of subspecies).


The term “Pigeon” is too generic for Columba livia var. domestica, as it applies to the entire Columbidae family. But “Feral Pigeon” is too specific, as it only includes feral populations, not captive ones. It’s true that iNaturalist has a focus on organisms in the wild, but common names should be inclusive of all memebers of the taxon, even captive individuals.

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